The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) is suffering from its biggest political setback in a decade. Its leader and former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed is back in jail. Other key opposition leaders are either in jail or in exile. The MDP has withdrawn from talks, noting that the government has failed to honor its commitments. All hopes for political reconciliation appears to have faded.
On Thursday, my colleague Saif and I walked the streets of Malé, canvassing opinions. In the capital, anger at the government is palpable, so is frustration and a certain amount of despair. At a loss as to what to do, many Maldivians are calling for mass protests and urging the international community to intervene.
“The only solution to this crisis is the overthrow of President Abdulla Yameen’s regime,” said one middle-aged woman who wished to remain anonymous. “How can we talk to the government when we are slowly losing our right to free speech? I never thought I’d say this, but Yameen’s regime is worse than his brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s 30-year rule.”
Fear, absent on the streets of Malé since 2007, appears to be slowly creeping back.
The middle-aged housewife had refused to share her name as two of her children worked for the police. “My grand children will have no where to go if their parents lose their jobs.”
Another elderly man with salt and pepper hair, who we met at the Artificial Beach, called for mass protests, but also refused to share his name for fear of losing his job. He works at the Islamic Ministry. “Maldivians must come out on the streets. The international community must intervene. Thugs are ruling our country. Back in the Gayoom era, all their dirty and inhumane work was done in secret. Yameen is a gangster, his actions are all public, without shame.”
Ali Wisham, a young man who said he had supported Yameen earlier, said: “The government’s actions are completely arbitrary. The people must come out and the international community must intervene.”
Many we spoke to identified Nasheed’s re-imprisonment, quashing of political dissent, return of authoritarian rule, corruption and the sudden changes to the constitution, including an amendment to allow foreigners to own land in the Maldives as their main grievances.
The president and government was frequently described as “thugs,” “gangsters,” “animals,” and “inhuman.”
Later, we met Hameeza Mohamed, a baker, who said she supported the government because she believed Yameen will bring development. “But I do not agree with Nasheed being taken back to jail.”
When asked about the end to political dialogue, Hameeza said the MDP must chose the interests of the nation, over that of one individual, a line touted by many ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) supporters.
Meanwhile, many government employees we met said they had been warned not to participate in opposition protests, and some said they had been made to sign memos agreeing not to attend protests. “There is now no check on the government’s power,” said one civil servant. Since the civil service remains the largest employer in the Maldives, the threat of dismissal silences many.
Failing to meet too many PPM supporters on the street, we called Moosa Anwar, a PPM activist, on the phone. “The opposition will always claim the government is dictatorial. But we are forging ahead, I find there is absolutely no reason to say the government is authoritarian,” he said.
When asked if he feared political turbulence with Nasheed’s re-imprisonment, he said: “If you look at Maldivian history, nothing’s been accomplished by protests. Look at the May Day protest. Opposition leaders abandoned their supporters.”
PPM MP Abdul Raheem Abdulla also dismissed claims of a slide back to authoritarianism. “The opposition finding fault with the government is part of a multi-party system.”
One ruling party activist who wished to remain anonymous said: “See the thing is, Nasheed never knew how to deal with the opposition, even when they sabotaged him. President Yameen is a firm leader, he knows how to handle the opposition.”
That night some two thousand people gathered for the MDP’s first rally in months. The day before, the police had blocked the MDP’s usual pick-up round around the city announcing the rally. Hours before people started to gather, the housing ministry had cordoned off the central stage, forcing the MDP to raise a stage across the street from the Artificial Beach.
The strong turnout appeared to give hope to many.
But echoing many MDP supporters’ fear that despite attracting large number of people to rallies, the party is unable to sustain street action for long periods of time, one 25-year-old artist said: “What we need to do is bring the city to a halt. They jail the president, harass his wife and children, break down the doors at his home. And all MDP could come up with is a rally?”
Additional reporting by Mohamed Saif Fathih. Editing by Zaheena Rasheed.